BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Despite all the repeated pious exhortations from every quarter to give Europe's biotechnology industry the right conditions for growth, the 15-member states that make up the European Union are not yet playing their part. At least that is what the EU's civil service, the European Commission, announced last week.

The commission issued yet another call to EU member states to intensify their efforts in biotechnology after a new analysis of what it called the "disappointing" EU progress in the field.

"The risk of diverging policies in member states could seriously hamper the effectiveness and consistency of the EU strategy in this field," the commission warned in a public statement that had backing from European Commission President Romano Prodi, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin and European Commissioner Erkki Liikanen, who is responsible for industrial affairs.

The commission admitted that some progress has been made in setting up new research programs for biotechnology, but "other vital policy areas are suffering from serious delays." In particular, the commission highlighted delays in bringing EU biotechnology patents legislation into effect at a national level. "These delays increase the risk of failing to meet" key EU objectives in biotechnology, according to the commission's analysis.

In its determination to foster competitiveness and innovation, the commission insisted not only on better-coordinated research across Europe and better access to risk capital, but also on a "clear, equitable, affordable and effective intellectual property rights regime in Europe." And this, it said, requires swift adoption of EU rules, including the current proposal for a community patent, and "transposition into national legislation of the directive on biotechnological inventions by non-compliant member states."

The commission, which is responsible for driving forward agreed EU policies, said, "Decisive action and concrete commitments are now urgent. These include, in particular, more research and financial resources, and completing the system for the protection of intellectual property rights."

Busquin, who has watched Europe's biotech companies relocate their investments to other regions, spoke with feeling about the failures as he announced the findings of the analysis.

"A recent commission survey of private biotech companies and public research institutes reveals that 39 percent of the respondents have canceled research projects on genetically modified organisms over the last four years," he said. "In the private sector alone, 61 percent of respondents have canceled research projects in this field. Furthermore, between 1998 and 2001, the number of notifications for GMO field trials in the EU declined by 76 percent."

Liikanen also wants to see more action in support of biotech firms.

"Practically the entire European biotechnology industry is facing difficulties due to the collapse of investor confidence in knowledge-based industries," he said. "Many small biotechnology enterprises, working on medical, industrial, agricultural and environmental applications, are unable to get the funding they need to turn their research findings into a commercial reality. If a large number of such enterprises were to fail, it would seriously undermine knowledge that is critical to the long-term competitiveness of major European industries."

To help ease international tensions over the EU's reservations on biotechnology, the commission is recommending the development of a multilateral consulting forum with the EU's main trading partners to "contribute to building international consensus on biotechnology," because important questions of principle are repeatedly raised.

"Biotechnology is currently discussed in many international fora," the commission said. "This is a reflection of the different concerns and objectives surrounding biotechnology, but raises a question of international governance. It is therefore essential to create an adequate forum for promoting an open and transparent dialogue between all stakeholders concerned, facilitating mutual understanding of the concerns and objectives of the different countries and regions."